Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Why overindulging your kids can lead to lifelong harm

Does it seem like you’re always getting your child a new toy or the latest gadget? Do you let them have their way too often? What is overindulgence and how can you put a halt to it?

When is enough - enough for you and your kids? Does it seem like you’re always getting them a new toy? Do you let them have their way too often?

Knowing these answers will make all of your lives easier and your children's futures happier and healthier.

All too often, the most loving and concerned parents can be unintentionally causing lifelong harm doing what they think is "best for their kids," only to find out later the complete opposite was true. The culprit? Overindulgence.

How Can This Happen? 

"Overindulgence starts from a good heart. Parents try to shield their children from the pains and difficulties they had to endure while growing up. Sometimes parents are responding to their own feelings of guilt and anxiety," says David Bredehoft, Ph.D., CFLE, a professor of Psychology and Family Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minn. He is also co-author of the recently released book, How Much is Too Much? Raising Likeable, Responsible, Respectful Children - From Toddlers To Teens - In An Age of Overindulgence.

In the parents' own words, they do it because:

I grew up in poverty. It was terrible and I don't want my children to experience that same thing, that's why I give them everything.

Both of us work. We feel guilty that we don't have as much time to spend with our children as our parents did. Besides, we are beat when we get home and don't have the energy. That's why we give in.

My parents were extremely rigid and I hated that! That's why I don't have rules or make them follow rules!

What Is Overindulgence?

Bredehoft's and his co-authors Jean Illsley Clarke, PhD and Connie Dawson, PhD, define overindulgence as:

Giving children too much of what looks good, too soon, and for too long. It is the process of giving things to a child to meet the adult's needs, not the child's.  When growing up, mom was always envious of her friends who had pianos, but her family couldn't afford one. She made sure her children not only had a piano and lessons; when that went un-played after a few months, it was followed by an assortment of other instruments.

Giving a disproportionate amount of family resources to one or more children in a way that appears to be meeting the children's needs, but does not, so children experience scarcity in the midst of plenty. They learn if something's not the newest model – get a new one; if one is good – more is even better; if it's too hard to do; look for an easier way. As adults, these children often experience competence issues, can't get down to work or give up on things before completing them.

A form of child neglect. It hinders children from mastering their needed developmental tasks and from learning necessary life lessons.

What Is the harm?

According to Bredehoft's research - plenty!

In the voices of adults who were overindulged as children:

I'm often disappointed in others. I feel let down by them. The more I give, the more I expect back.

I don't know what reality is.

I'm discontented. I overeat, over drink, overcook, and over feed others.

I'm so far in debt I can't see the light of day.

I can't follow rules.

I don't have coping skills.

I'm unhappy.

What Can Parents Do?

The answer to this question is also, thank goodness, plenty!

Bredehoft and his colleagues have taken this highly technical research data and developed a remarkably effective, parent (let's not forget grandparent) user friendly overindulgence check-list.

The Test of Four:

  1. Does the situation hinder the child from learning the tasks that support his or her development and learning at this stage?

  1. Does the situation give a disproportionate amount of family resources to one or more of the children?

  1. Does the situation exist to benefit the adult more than the child?

  1. Does the child's behavior potentially harm others, society, or the planet in some way?

At first glance you might look at these questions and say to yourself, "Of course, I don't do that, well hardly ever." But I'm pretty certain that if you actually take the time to stop and think about the Test of Four before buying, doing, or tolerating intolerable behavior, you'll be shocked at much you do for your children for all the wrong reasons. That's the bad news. The good news is now you have some answers.

For more information:

Bredehoft, Clarke, and Dawson's website: Raising Likeable, Responsible, Respectful Children in an Age of Overindulgence

5 Tips for Parents to Avoid the Damaging Effects of Overindulgence from Clarke

12 Signs You're Overindulging Your Child from Jill Rigby, author of Raising Unselfish Children in a Self-Absorbed World

Quiz – Why Do Parents Overindulge from Bredehoft, Clarke, and Dawson's website

Have a question for the Healthy Kids panel? Ask it here. Read more from the Healthy Kids blog »